Have a break, have a KitKat!
Ah, KitKats. They’re simple, moreish, and very much…English. Chocolate is a relatively new concept in Japan. Although it was introduced into the land of the rising sun centuries ago by Dutch sailors, like many things Western, it wasn’t readily adopted until after WWII, during the American Occupation.
So why does this chocolate bar in particular have a page on a Japanese food blog?
Turns out that the KitKat is a top selling chocolate brand in Japan.
Creation of the KitKat
(Completely unrelated to Japan, but interesting nonetheless. Skip to ‘History of the KitKat in Japan’ if you want to read about its connection to Japan)
KitKat was created in 1935 by Joseph Rowntree, under his company name Rowntree’s, in England. He trademarked the name in 1911. There are two stories behind KitKat’s name.
The first is that the name ‘KitKat’ originated in the 17th century. In the late 1690s the Kit-Kat Club was founded in a pie shop on Shire Lane, London. Members were Whig party supporters and/or literature-focused persons. The owner of the pie shop, Christopher Catling, catered his own meat pies for the club. Everyone called these pie ‘kit cats’ – an abbreviation on Christopher’s name.
The second is that Rowntree created the name himself. His wife was a member of the Kappa Alpha Theta sorority. One of their sayings was ‘Keep in touch, Kappa, Alpha Theta’, of which the acronym is ‘kitkat’.
Before the KitKat we know today was created, it was originally a box of chocolates called ‘Kit Cats’. This was released in 1920 but was only on the market for a few years before being discontinued. Rowntree changed the recipe to create a chocolate wafer divided into four fingers, and introduced it into the market in 1935 as ‘Rowntree’s Chocolate Crisps’ (ie: the KitKat as we know it today). In 1937, the company changed the chocolate bar’s name to ‘Kit Kat Chocolate Crisp’. By this time, the KitKat was also a best seller in the British marketplace.
The marketing behind the KitKat was that it would be the perfect accompaniment to packed lunches or a cup of tea. In those days, candy bars were often promoted and used as meal replacements (in fact, one marketing campaign promoted KitKats as ‘the biggest little meal’). Rowntree specifically designed the KitKat’s unique square-ish shape so that workers could easily put it into their lunch bags. But for those wanting to eat it as a snack, it was also promoted as ‘the best companion to a cup of tea’. This was the forerunner to KitKat’s now famous ‘have a break’ slogan.
During WWII (1939-1945), the shortage of milk caused Rowntree to use dark chocolate for his KitKats instead. To make the change known to consumers, he changed the colour of the wrapper to blue and dropped the ‘chocolate crisp’ part from KitKat’s name. When milk supplies were up again, the wrapper changed back to red but the name was kept in its shortened version.
KitKat’s ‘break’ slogan was created in 1958. Innovation in manufacturing helped firm up KitKat bars to the point where it made a distinctive snap when broken apart. J Walter Thompson, an advertising expert, combined this ‘breaking’ sound with KitKat’s existing ‘tea break’ concept to create ‘have a break, have a KitKat’.
KitKat was still very much a British product, unknown globally, until the Rowntree company was bought by Nestle in the 1980s. Now it is sold in more than 100 countries.
History of the KitKat in Japan
When Nestle globalised KitKats, of course the Western countries took to it more readily than other countries. Japan, in particular, has always been a hard market for foreign products to enter. Japan takes much pride in its own domestic goods and services. A salient example is regional produce, such as Nagoya’s hacchou-miso.
KitKats appeared on the Japanese market in 1973. I would assume the Japanese’s fascination with anything Western post-WWII was a large factor in helping KitKats stay on the market. Also, there would have been relatively little in the way of competition in the chocolate market, as until then confectionary was mostly wagashi (和菓子・わがし) – Japanese-style sweets.
So how did the KitKat become one of Japan’s top selling chocolate brands, as well as a national craze? Sometime around the start of the 21st century, Nestle noticed that KitKat sales would spike every January. It didn’t take long for them to realise that people were buying KitKats as good-luck presents for students undertaking exams, particularly university entrance exams.
But why KitKats of all things?
A common phrase the Japanese say to people about to take exams is:
‘you’ll surely win’
Comparing that to the Japanese word for ‘KitKat’…
…and it’s easy to see why.
Similar to many other Asian languages, Japanese is full of homophones, or near-homophones. These homophones play a large part in cultural superstition and practices – for example, during New Years a traditional dish is kazunoko (数の子・かずのこ). The characters that make up the name literally means ‘a number of children’ – so it is eaten at New Years as it symbolises many children, hence a prosperous family.
Before Nestle made this discovery, linking KitKats to good-luck gifts was already strong amongst the Japanese population due to word of mouth. Giving KitKats was not limited to exam time, but was given in any time where the giver wanted to express ‘good luck’ to the recipient. This discovery really was fortuitous for Nestle, as KitKat’s ‘have a break’ slogan does not carry the same meaning or implication when translated into Japanese. In addition, Nestle could leverage on Japan’s deeply-rooted gift-giving culture. In 2009, Nestle collaborated with Japan Post to create a postable KitKat. Consumers could post KitKats, along with a personalised message, without having to arrange a face-to-face meeting. The convenience and novelty of this exponentially increased the distribution range for KitKats. Such was its marketing genius that this strategy won the Media Grand Prix at the 56th Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival.
Also in the early 2000s, Nestle leveraged on another Japanese custom: regional products (gotochi ごとち). They began to create a range of KitKat flavours, with a strong emphasis on limited-time, region-specific KitKats (gotochi KitKats). Many Japanese travel domestically and regional products are particularly prized as gifts. Creating KitKat flavours available only in a specific region for a specific time compels many to travel to that particular region. Some examples are:
- Nagano: Shinshu apple KitKat
- Shizuoka: wasabi KitKat (山葵・わさび )
- Kyoto: hojicha KitKat (保持茶・ほじちゃ ’roasted green tea’)
KitKat Culture in Japan
While KitKat sales are declining in the British market, they are steadily increasing in Japan. While KitKats are still strongly attached to university entrance exams, the decision to link KitKats to unusual and regional flavours has ensured sales all-year round.
As of date there are currently over 300 flavours that Nestle Japan has produced. While some flavours have not been successful, Nestle can continue to develop new flavours because the Japanese market love seeing innovation and novelty. They particularly have predilection for strange, weird, or uncommon flavours and ingredients. And in regards to chocolate, the Japanese don’t view it was something that must be strictly sweet. This enables KitKat flavours such as: soy sauce, wasabi, sake, and ichimi togarashi (一味唐辛子・いちみとうがらし ’ground red chilli pepper’). Many flavours have a short market span, and when they are taken off market, the leftover inventory of the various flavours are mixed and packaged as ‘happy bags’. These are sold during major gift-giving seasons, such as New Years. Japanese KitKat have 6 smaller fingers instead of the usual 4. This works better for the Japanese as chocolate is viewed as a occasional treat, rather than something that is eaten more regularly (as chocolate is usually much sweeter than wagashi). As such, it makes a perfect gift for a special occasion.
Contrary to many other countries, KitKat is regarded as a premium chocolate brand in Japan. The first KitKat Chocolatory store was opened in Japan. This shop is a dedication to KitKats, and consumers can purchase high-end KitKats, Chocolatory-only flavours, and limited re-releases of popular flavours. In 2003, patissier Takagi Yasumasa (surname: Takagi, given name: Yasumasa) became head to the development team at the Chocolatory stores and has since invented many unique flavours. His most recent is sushi KitKat.
Although KitKats can be high-end, there is still a large market for common, everyday KitKats. The average consumer can purchase a plethora of flavours at very reasonable prices all around Japan, at airports, train stations, supermarkets, konbinis, and 100-yen stores.
It’s no wonder that in Japan, a kitto katto means kitto katsu.
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